After the fire

Posted April 10, 2009, at 6:24 p.m.

The air in Jay Sawyer’s studio in Warren sparkled with tiny slivers of dust as he and fellow sculptor Stephen Porter began sanding metal pieces one afternoon early this week.

First, Porter took a sander to a curved piece of stainless steel on a workbench. Then Sawyer picked up another sander across the studio and began working on a much larger aluminum circle. Except for the noise of the machinery, the pair worked in silence.

After a few minutes, Sawyer stopped.

“You want to try to stand it up?” he asked.

“OK,” Porter said, and the artists attached a hoist and used it to bring the giant circle upright.

Sawyer and Porter have been working for the last few weeks on what will eventually be an orange-painted circle with three overlapping pink arcs, the logo for the Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana, Ill. Porter was hired to turn the logo into a three-dimensional sculpture for placement at the institute.

But the process has not been without its devastating ordeals.

The artists had been collaborating on and nearly finished the piece at Porter’s studio at Searsmont early in the year when fire broke out Jan. 30. Porter, an artist known for his metal- and woodwork, lost everything, including the logo-in-progress and two other commissioned pieces bound for China.

Since that time, the artists returned to work at Sawyer’s studio in Warren, crafting a new version of the logo. Porter has also had time to finish the two other commissions.

Although they’ve worked side by side, the two men couldn’t be more different. From their styles to their backgrounds — one was an academic at one of the country’s biggest universities, the other was a former full-time welder and fabricator — there are few similarities between Sawyer and Porter.

Porter’s work is sleek, elegant, graceful. He uses wood and stainless steel formed into curves, sometimes used as bases for tables.

Sawyer’s work is earthy and rough. He uses found materials, such as the old tanks sitting on his property, or the rusty railroad spikes incorporated into one of his recent works.

The clean-shaven Porter has been working for decades, has had his work displayed in museums, and takes international commissions. Sawyer, who has a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, got started with his art just a few years ago, and is trying to make a name for himself in the local art scene.

In the studio, the two don’t talk much. They’re usually too busy grinding or sanding. But it seems like there’s not much they need to say.

“If I’m working there and he’s working there, we don’t talk to each other,” Porter said. “I never liked having people help and work in my studio. At Penn State I hired some students to help and it just wasn’t worth it. But working with Jay is completely different. Obviously he knew exactly what to do and sometimes he told me how to do things. For me, it’s great.”

The collaboration has been great for Sawyer, too. Aside from the money he’ll make from helping Porter out, he has gained experience in the art field and what has turned out to be an invaluable resource in the more experienced artist.

“We got to the art world by different journeys, big-time,” Sawyer said. “The [experience] for me has concentrated this realization or change that I’ve gone through, to be creative and mix with people with creative minds. My concept, what I plan to do, is just make a living off of this, just do sculpture. I’m headed in that direction.”

Longing for Maine

For the 29 years Stephen Porter taught sculpture and computer animation at Pennsylvania State University, he never spent a summer in the state of Pennsylvania. Instead, the family would converge on a Penobscot Bay island Porter’s grandfather bought in 1912.

“This felt like coming home,” he said of his move to Maine several years ago.

Porter, 67, grew up far away from Maine, in Santa Fe, N.M. He graduated from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., and went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

While at Penn State, Porter became an established artist. He had shows in New York, Washington, D.C, Oregon and Pennsylvania. He took commissions that went to sites in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. His work is in museum collections in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Texas.

After moving to Searsmont, Porter joined the University of Maine art faculty and began showing his work in Maine galleries. He also started up a sculptors’ discussion group, which is how he first met Sawyer. Porter asked Sawyer to help with the logo so that Porter could finish the commissions for his customers in China.

Porter’s former studio, a 52-foot wooden barn dating back, he thinks, to the 1920s, is where he kept his tools, along with those his father had collected and given to him. It was irreplaceable stuff, Porter said.

On the afternoon of the fire on Jan. 30, Porter had worked in the studio and then gone into his house for a shower. He was sitting in his kitchen, which doesn’t have a view of the barn, when a next-door neighbor called to tell him the barn was ablaze. Within six minutes, the structure was in flames.

Porter still doesn’t understand how the fire started. In all his years of welding, he had always tried to be so careful, keeping welding supplies on one side of the barn and wood on the other.

“I think about it all the time,” he said. “Can’t stop thinking about it.”

Porter lost everything — the work he was finishing and all his old tools. In the days after the fire, Porter said, he heard from Jim Cox, who owns a machine shop in Searsmont. Cox gave Porter some tools, supplies and welding wire, for which Porter remains grateful.

The studio will be rebuilt eventually, but that didn’t help Porter and the commissions that had been lost. Sawyer, who had already been helping Porter fabricate the logo, made it easier when he told Porter they could resume work on the pieces in his Warren studio.

“There weren’t a whole lot of options,” Sawyer said.

Shop to studio

Sawyer, 47, ran his own welding, fabrication and repair business out of his home and shop in Warren for 16 years.

Now, what was once Sawyer’s Welding and Mobile Repair is Stemwinder Sculptureworks Garden.

Four years ago, he converted his shop into a studio, which is decorated with old political stickers, old town and road signs, and handwritten inspirational quotes and song lyrics from bands such as Pink Floyd, a particular favorite. There’s a sculpture gallery on part of his 7½-acre plot of land, with a painted truck that can be seen from Route 90.

Like Porter, Sawyer is an artist, although with a very different background.

He was born in Rockland and earned an engineering degree from Maine Maritime Academy in Castine in 1983. He spent five years in the Merchant Marines before returning to the Rockland area and moving to Warren. While he was running his own business, Sawyer often got calls from artists needing repairs on their work.

That got him thinking about doing art himself. Those thoughts were under the surface, he said, like a fantasy, but Sawyer didn’t know how to achieve it.

“Artists would come to me and ask me [to do repairs], and that showed me they had the confidence to let me work on their stuff,” he said. “They kept telling me I had something there and to chase it, and I wanted to. You hit your 40s and you realize, you just have to go do it. Nobody’s going to do it for you. If you sit around and wait for it, it’s not going to happen.”

He made the transition to art and began to familiarize himself with his new world. He started attending Porter’s sculpting discussion group, and has been making a name for himself in the area.

One of the pieces sitting on his backyard lawn is a sphere made of railroad spikes, which he is hoping will be accepted for a public sculpture grant from the Maine Arts Commission and the Harry Faust Art Fund.

The $20,000 grant would be a huge step in his career, which has taken off in the form of small commissions and sales. Although matching funds of 25 percent are encouraged but not required, Sawyer said he already has 38 percent in-kind donations. Sawyer said he also has permission from Maine Eastern Railroad to place the sculpture at its Rockland station, and the city of Rockland recently agreed to accept ownership of the work.

He won’t hear about his grant application for several months, but Sawyer hopes the arts commission will see what he sees in the sphere.

“The spikes in the sphere represent the railroad, and the railroad bringing tourists into Rockland,” he said. “Rockland is an arts destination, so it kind of ties everything in.”

Sawyer still takes some fabrication work, but set his own work aside when Porter moved his operations into the Warren studio.

“I have a big backlog,” he said. “People have been pretty good about it but they’re all kind of waiting. I told them all ‘a couple of weeks’ and that was a couple of weeks ago. But I’ll be banging any day now.”

Working in stride

Sawyer intended to drive to Searsmont on Saturday, Jan. 31, to help Porter finish the logo. Sawyer called Porter’s house at about 3 p.m. Friday, and spoke with Porter’s wife while Porter was working in his studio. She told Sawyer to go ahead and come up to Searsmont, and that Porter would call Sawyer if anything came up.

Sawyer got the call from Porter at about 9 p.m. Friday. Porter relayed the story of the fire and told Sawyer there was no need for him to come the following day.

Sawyer drove to Searsmont anyway the next morning.

“It kind of struck closer to home than just being a friend,” Sawyer said. “I was shocked. It was just right to the ground. Well, it was the middle of winter so I wasn’t that busy that I couldn’t fit anything in, and it just seemed natural. We were already right in stride.”

Less than two weeks later, Sawyer and Porter had the materials they needed to start over on the logo and the two Chinese commissions. The logo was ready to go to an Auburn company for painting by Monday. When the logo parts come back, the artists will build a shipping crate and send the piece to its final destination.

The two worked mostly in silence earlier this week, Sawyer sanding the logo and Porter on a commissioned piece for a private residence in Windsor, Ontario.

They do talk during the day, however, especially when they stop for lunch. During one recent lunch break, the veteran Porter gave relative rookie Sawyer some advice about a situation Sawyer found himself in.

An unfavorable letter to the editor about Sawyer’s sphere had appeared in a local weekly newspaper. The letter accused Sawyer of copying John Bisbee, a Bowdoin College faculty member and sculptor known for his work with nails.

Sawyer was upset.

“Me just being the old Maine boy, I think, I’m going to write a letter [back] and let him know,” Sawyer said. Steve was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t touch that. Don’t respond to that.’ Steve played devil’s advocate while we were eating lunch or something. But we went through this discussion. Any person who puts work out there, you hope it withstands scrutiny whether it’s a piece from myself or a repair job. This is what I found out.”

Porter was advising Sawyer based on his own personal experience. In 1983 when Porter had a sculpture on the grounds of the Federal Reserve Board building in Washington, D.C., a passer-by wrote a letter of complaint to then-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, calling Porter’s work a “pile of junk.” Volcker himself responded to the letter and suggested that the writer didn’t understand Porter’s work.

Porter’s advice and their conversation gave Sawyer the confidence, he said, to approach the local letter-writer during a recent art opening and talk things out.

Eventually, Porter will move out of Sawyer’s space and back into a new studio, but it’s unlikely the two will forget the experience of working together, even for a few months. The collaboration has even helped Sawyer grow as an artist.

“[Porter’s story] put it right into perspective,” Sawyer said. “Me coming into art the way I came in, with no formal art education, I was conscious of that and to some extent I’m still feeling my way of where I fit in the art world. I do know I fit, I just have to find my little corner where I’m comfortable. But things are working out. Things keep coming, the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.”

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